For the first time, scientists have discovered a space hurricane in the upper atmosphere of the earth. Classic hurricanes are easy to spot on satellite images. They are made up of swirling clouds that surround a calm eye in the center. These storms generally occur at the lowest level of the Earth’s atmosphere, causing heavy rains and particularly devastating winds. Space hurricanes are of a completely different nature.
At least that’s what a study published last month in the journal Nature Communications suggests. In August 2014, four satellites discovered a swirling mass several hundred kilometers above the Earth’s North Pole. With a width of about 1000 km, it formed in the ionosphere – between 80 and 965 km altitude – and lasted almost 8 hours.
A plasma hurricane
The strange formation, somewhat reminiscent of the typical hurricane, was shaped like a funnel. However, instead of triggering heavy rains and high winds, it rained electrons straight into the upper atmosphere. So it was a plasma storm. “Until now it has not been certain that space plasma hurricanes existed. So it is incredible to prove it with such a striking observation,” replied Mike Lockwood, a physicist at the University of Reading in the UK and co-author of the study. in relation to this discovery.
A 3D model for better understanding
Note that this first space hurricane to be discovered on Earth rotated counterclockwise. Scientists claim to have noticed the presence of multiple circular arms protruding from their center. Lockwood and his staff actually created a 3D model from satellite imagery to better understand the phenomenon. Thanks to this, they managed to reproduce the whirlwind and find out its cause. According to their calculations and observations, the space hurricane was caused by the solar corona, that is, the upper atmosphere of the sun.
Diagram of the space hurricane and its mechanism of formation. Photo credit: Zhang, QH., Zhang, YL., Wang, C. et al. A space hurricane over the Earth’s polar ionosphere. Nat Commun 12, 1207 (2021).
A common phenomenon on other planets?
In fact, this flux of charged particles emitted by the sun is known as the solar wind. It moves rapidly in space at a very high speed, at over a million kilometers per hour. When the solar winds collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, they bounce back and do not reach what is on the surface of the planet.
But sometimes charged particles and plasma interact with the electric force behind the earth’s shield. This leads to disturbances in the magnetosphere. It turns out that the August 2014 space hurricane was the result of such disruptions. In light of this discovery, the researchers estimate that this type of storm could be common on any planet with a magnetic shield whose atmosphere contains plasma.